Belladonna opens with your player character awakening in a basement laboratory, with no memory of who she is, how she got here, or what this huge piece of clockwork is doing in her head.
In the room with you (as well as the tools required to progress in the usual point and click fashion of finding objects, combining them, and applying them to other objects) is a letter written by a Dr. Wolfram von Trauerschloss, which introduces the Frankenstine style plot (if the clockwork headpiece of the main character wasn’t already a tip-off).
What makes this game different is that it is unequivocally a story about women.
[This article spoils the whole plot of Belladonna, a point-and-click adventure game which takes approximately 60-90 minutes to play and is certainly worth your time.]
Dr. von Trauerschloss, through his letters, quickly reveals himself as the villain of the story; having first murdered his wife Belladonna’s lover, the maid Klara, and then murdered Belladonna herself in an attempt to reanimate her as “a beautiful, obedient automaton.”
His experiment is, at least at first, a success, and he celebrates his creation: “a mechanical doll with all the functionality of a woman but who…does what she is told.”
This backstory, that establishes the first half of the game, is inherently gendered. Questions of autonomy and controlling “spirited” women–and women in general–stretch long before Belladonna’s Gothic setting and follow us to the present day. The real life von Trauerschlosses of the world might not be able to reanimate obedient dolls, but they try their hardest, with “pick up artists” writing articles like How To Make Women Do Anything You Want or How To Make Her Submit to You.
These men are part of an incredibly misogynistic tradition, one that Belladonna resoundingly attacks through its villain. Addressing these issues in games is rare, and only possible when a game chooses to centre itself on women and their specific experiences and stories. It’s why, whilst character creation is often a fun and interesting choice for a game, characters who are always female (or of other marginalised identities) remain important.
These threads continue; though more letters, we learn that the reanimated Belladonna slowly regains her mind and, furious at her own mistreatment and the murder of her girlfriend, kills her abusive husband, completing his condemnation in the narrative.
She then reanimates Klara, and it is revealed that this is who you have been playing as all along. The love story between two women now takes centre stage, but the theme of autonomy remains. The reason Belladonna was not present upon Klara’s awakening is because her clockwork required winding, and Dr. von Trauerschloss had placed the key in the centre of her back where she could not reach it (as well as locking away the winding mechanism), making her entirely dependent on him.
Conversely, as you may remember, Klara’s clockwork is in her head where she can wind it herself. Belladonna specifically changed her husband’s formula to ensure the freedom of Klara, despite the fact that if Klara were to use this freedom to leave, Belladonna would wind down and essentially die.
The difference draws sharp contrast between Belladonna’s relationship with her abusive husband and her lover, creating a healthy basis for the romance that she has chosen to be in rather than her original marriage. Being reanimated also changes Belladonna and Klara’s inherent power imbalance, since Klara is no longer in Belladonna’s employ.
In other words, after demonstrating the worst of controlling relationships, the game takes pains to present a better way, and it does so without being heavy handed; merely presenting a loving couple overcoming past abuse and allowing the player to see how they differ. This is a smart depiction of dynamics that are often overlooked in a medium where women are more commonly viewed as rewards for the male hero to obtain over the course of the game.
Finally, the game ends with Belladonna and Klara creating an army of reanimated people, though what they plan to do with them is unclear. A silly and fun conclusion, to be sure, but still noteworthy in a media landscape that rarely gives women who love women a happy ending, preferring to play into tropes like Bury Your Gays.
All in all, Belladonna questions many game stereotypes, provides representation, and exposes deep and long running misogyny, simply by dedicating itself to telling the story of two women in love; demonstrating the importance of stories that focus specifically and respectfully on diverse characters and their unique experiences, rather than expecting the player to put their own representation into a “one size fits all” narrative.